Jeff Sessions running the Justice Department represents a huge step backward for voting rights in the United States. It’s a big step backwards on numerous issues. But this is the issue I’m focusing on in this post. In one way it will bring us back to the dark days of the Bush DOJ when political operatives tried to use the country’s US Attorneys to drive a voter suppression agenda around the country. That, you’ll remember, was the backstory to the US Attorney firing scandal. The fired US Attorneys were ones who wouldn’t play ball or resisted playing ball when it came to bringing trumped up ‘voter fraud’ prosecutions as part of that campaign of voter suppression. I think we can be confident that that will now return with a vengeance.
But there’s a broader point I’d like to make on Sessions.
A lot of the coverage today has centered on claims that Sessions is, to put it simply, a racist and has no business being Attorney General. You can look up the story of his failed nomination to the federal bench. There’s plenty of evidence that this is true. Using derogatory words about African-Americans, expressing contempt for white civil rights attorneys, wholly unreconstructed views about civil rights organizations, nostalgia for the Klan. The list goes on and on.
But I think this misses the point or is in some ways a distraction. As Tierney Sneed explains in this article, the single most distinguishing feature of Sessions public career is his hostility to African-American voting and the laws put in place to protect African-American voting rights. That stretches from bringing predatory voter fraud indictments with the fairly obvious aim of discouraging efforts to mobilize black voters in Alabama. You can see it in his long-running hostility to the Voting Rights Act. You can see it in his opposition to laws intended to end or the reduce the practice of permanently disenfranchising felons. Again, read Tierney’s article. The list goes on and on.
I would say there is much, much more evidence that Jeff Sessions is a racist than that Steve Bannon is anti-Semite. But it’s the same difference in both cases. Their actions are what matter, not their personal feelings and prejudices.
The Justice Department has been the historic ally of minority voting around the country. Much less during Republican administrations than Democratic ones, of course. But the raison d’etre of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has held up that commitment to a significant degree even under administrations that were generally indifferent to voting rights. Again, the backstory of the Bush-era US Attorney scandal is an instructive one here.
Reducing minority voting has been a major part of the Republican policy agenda at the state level since 2011. I don’t think it led to Hillary Clinton’s defeat. But I don’t think there’s any question that it contributed to reduced minority voting in several key states. So it was a contributor to her defeat – in addition to numerous other factors.
Over the last eight years, the Obama Justice Department has been an aggressive defender of voting rights. Under Jeff Sessions, the federal government will unquestionably abandon that battle and join sides with GOP controlled states to further limit voting rights. They will most likely also use the power of the DOJ to attack voting rights in states where Democrats are in power. They will almost certainly reorient the DOJ’s focus to trumped up voter fraud investigations.
It’s a big deal. That’s what matters. And that’s what’s right there plain in the light of day.